United States Verdi, Macbeth: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera, New York, conducted by Fabio Luisi. Broadcast to the Odeon Cinema, Chelmsford, Essex, 11.9.2014. (JPr)
Macbeth: Željko Lučić
Banquo: René Pape
Lady Macbeth: Anna Netrebko
Lady-in-waiting to Lady Macbeth: Claudia Waite
A servant of Macbeth: Christopher Job
Duncan, King of Scotland: Raymond Renault
Malcolm, Duncan’s son: Noah Baetge
Macduff. Thane of Fife: Joseph Calleja
Fleance, Banquo’s son: Moritz Linn
A murderer: Richard Bernstein
A herald: Seth Malkin
A doctor: James Courtney
Apparitions: David Crawford (a warrior), Ashley Emerson (a bloody child) & Jihee Kim (a crowned child)
Production: Adrian Noble
Set & Costume designer: Mark Thompson
Lighting designer: Jean Kalman
Choreographer: Sue Lefton
Met Live in HD director: Gary Halvorson
Live in HD Host: Anita Rachvelishvili
Verdi’s best operas were yet to come when he wrote Macbeth, and – although I have never seen it as a straight play – I doubt whether even such a great performance such as this will be on a dramatic par with a version of Shakespeare’s play in the theatre or on TV. Of course I know the story and was surprised when checking back on some records I have of my early opera-going days that I actually saw the opera several times at Covent Garden and English National Opera … but not since 1990 as far as I can recall. The Macbeths included Sherrill Milnes, Renato Bruson and Jonathan Summers (recently a fine Iago in ENO’s Otello) and a couple of the Lady Macbeths were Grace Bumbry and Renata Scotto.
There is much stirring music in Macbeth but basically it is just one set-piece (monologues, duets or ensembles) followed by another. It is clear Verdi – who had already written nine operas – was striving for a greater sense of flowing music-drama with Macbeth. In tackling a play by his beloved Shakespeare he was ready to take some real risks. Writing to his librettist Francesco Maria Piave he announced ‘This tragedy is one of the greatest creations of man! If we can’t do something great with it, let us at least try to do something out of the ordinary’ and they both sensed that some scenes demanded music. When we first meet Lady Macbeth, alone onstage – and in Adrian Noble’s production lounging on a large bed – she reads out loud a letter from Macbeth telling her about what the witches had prophesied. Shakespeare has her worrying about her husband’s weakness which is something she intends to deal with as she plots the demise of Duncan, the Scottish king. Verdi turns this scene into a tour de force for all Lady Macbeths, the first of several. After an urgent and ominous orchestral introduction, the soprano intones the words of the letter, before she launches into a resolutely dramatic recitative, culminating in a portentous high C, then plunging – mimicking the dagger that will soon be used against the king – into chesty low notes full of menace. She begins the famous aria ‘Vieni! t’affretta!’ and even though, as to be expected, Piave’s words are more clichéd than Shakespeare’s, Verdi’s music is conspiratorial, manipulative and compelling leaving no question about who ‘wears the trousers’ in this marriage.
The opera also gives us Macbeth’s encounters with the witches, Duncan’s murder, the banqueting scene and Macbeth’s descent in madness, the sleepwalking scene, the battle that culminates in the strangest of all musical moments – a tenor duet(!) between Macduff and Malcolm. Throw into the mix Lady Macbeth’s Act 2 aria and a Traviata-like brindisi, then for all lovers of Verdi their ‘cup runneth over’ (not Shakepeare but from Psalm 23!).
Adrian Noble’s fairly static minimalist 2007 production seemed designed for the cinema allowing atmospheric longshots of gloomy forests with blackened trees or their silhouettes as well as claustrophobic castle rooms bordered by huge columns with neon light trimmings. Apart from beds and chairs (used especially for Lady Macbeth to sleepwalk over) and a jeep there was little else shown on stage in a production updated (with Mark Thompson’s sets and costumes) to a mid-twentieth-century warzone. From the moment the charismatic Anna Netrebko – with long blond locks and wearing a satin nightgown that was often falling from her shoulders – rose from her bed to read Macbeth’s letter, Gary Halvorson’s camera work for his Live in HD broadcast lingered on her in loving close-up and it was clear this house-favourite soprano was living every moment of Lady Macbeth in her first foray into a more dramatic repertoire. This was the voice of a bygone era heard in 2014! Her absolute control of the range and runs that Verdi demands of her when added to some gleaming top notes made this a performance that will linger long in my memory. To quote the comedy duo the Two Ronnies, Anna Netrebko brings ‘music to the masses and pleasure to the deaf.’
Željko Lučić sang Macbeth when this production was new in 2007, and he has a world-weary physicality and voice that suits the character admirably. His slight tired-sounding, gritty baritone still had great reserves of power and a smooth legato when necessary and he was a very convincing actor. In the pivotal ‘dagger scene’ when he emerges with his hands and shirt covered in blood having despatched the king while he was sleeping, Macbeth turns to his wife in desperation as if he has had an out-of-body experience. He seems unable to grasp what is happening to him and why. His Lady Macbeth is the consummate puppet mistress and he does not have a hope of escaping the hold she has over him because of her sexuality. Željko Lučić’s other best moments were his ravings about Banquo’s ghost in Act II and he didn’t deserve to have a microphone trust under his nose for an interval interview immediately after this demanding scene.
Intriguingly the female choristers portraying the witches are presented as a band of frumpily-clothed vagrants carrying large purses and accompanied by various children, and they all seem subject to moments of delirium from time to time. Throughout the opera the accomplished Met chorus made a wonderful contribution and looked and sounded happy to be back on stage after a long period of fraught Union negotiations. The Met’s soon-to-depart principal conductor, Fabio Luisi, supported them and all the soloists through a commanding, propulsive and electric performance from his excellent orchestra.
The wonderful bass René Pape was Banquo, a leader of Duncan’s Scottish army, who is assassinated at Macbeth’s command because the witches foretell he will be the father of future kings. However, I find René Pape a rather bland singer and he would probably look the same whether, as here, he is about to be murdered … or if he was announcing he had become a millionaire through a lottery.
Luxury casting gave us Joseph Calleja in the relatively small role of Macduff, the young nobleman who finally kills Macbeth. He was not expecting it because he had been told ‘no man of woman born’ would kill him, but Macduff had a Caesarean birth! Calleja sang ardently and with the sweet effortless lyricism that makes him Pavarotti’s natural successor. In Act IV on the Scottish border Macduff joins the refugees who are fleeing Scotland, who with their spirits broken sing a plaintive, eloquent, powerfully understated chorus, one of Verdi’s finest. Macduff seeks revenge for the death of his wife and children at the hands of the tyrant (‘Ah, la paterna mano’). He is soon joined by Malcolm, the son of King Duncan, and the English army. Malcolm (sung by Noah Baetge with a timbre almost identical to Joseph Calleja’s) orders each soldier to cut a branch from a tree in Birnam Wood and carry it as they attack Macbeth’s castle, fulfilling for Macbeth the prophesy of the witches. They are determined to liberate Scotland from tyranny (‘La patria tradita’) and again the Met chorus was as wonderful as ever. We are left with a final tour de force for Lady Macbeth, the great sleepwalking scene, and Anna Netrebko, who has taken leave of her senses, sings some haunting music whilst walking across some chairs and out of the opera.
Live in HD’s debutant host was its current Carmen, Anita Rachvelishvili, who did a reasonable job even though she occasionally needed subtitles because of a thick accent. Joseph Calleja remind us that everything can be sung bel canto regardless of the composer because it just means ‘beautiful singing’. Meanwhile Anna Netrebko seemed high on life both in her backstage interview and her antics during her curtain call as she acknowledged one of the most deserved standing ovations she will ever get. Anna Netrebko admitted that she is ‘crazy’ and how the character suited her personality and responded with delightfully feigned anger as others backstage laughed when Anita Rachvelishvili commented on what a ‘nice person’ she is. Whether onstage or off Anna Netrebko was a revelation, absolutely phenomenal, and a total joy to have seen and heard.
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